James Cameron's deep sea dives a 'blockbuster' for science

    11:41 AM, Mar 26, 2013   |    comments
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    UNDATED (CBS) - One year ago today, Oscar-winning filmmaker James Cameron dove to one of the deepest spots in Earth's oceans. He did so in a personally-designed submarine. What he found could be a "blockbuster" for science.

    James Cameron is one of the top grossing movie makers of all time. Over the years he's taken us on many adventures to other times and distant worlds.

    But the Academy Award winner will tell you his fictional adventures can't compare to the real life feat he accomplished one year ago.

    He climbed into this one man submarine and strapped himself into this claustrophobia-inducing cabin. Then, he descended to the deepest part of the ocean, the Marianna Trench in the Pacific off the Philippines. He'd dreamed of this since he was a boy. He says, "Nothing was more exciting to me than going to another planet as an idea. And then one day I suddenly realized we have this alien planet right here on Earth. All you have to do is go underneath the surface of the water that's not explored. And I thought, 'I can go there.'"

    He did it in a sub, the Deep Sea Challenger, that he designed and built. He studied physics in junior college, but his passion and curiosity drove him to learn all he could about the ocean and engineering. He also got the help of what he called a ragtag bunch of like-minded geeks. Cameron says, "The engineers were from disparate backgrounds. Very few of them had ever worked on a piloted submersible vehicle before. The end result is a very sophisticated piece of hardware."

    It had to be to take him almost seven miles down. He went down deeper than Mount Everest is tall. Cameron says, "This is something I love to do. The idea was to create a science platform, bring back samples, bring back images and expand the scope of human knowledge."

    When he shone light where none had ever penetrated before, he saw a watery moonscape. But in the sediment he brought up from the deep scientists have found abundant life. Cameron says, "Something like 20,000 separate genomes of bacteria. We know of at least 68 of them that are brand new species."

    He found what looks like a giant shrimp. Inside it, Cameron says, "A compound that's currently being tested by the FDA as an Alzheimer's drug."

    At NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena they're mining the sediment Cameron retrieved from the dark, cold ocean floor for hints to the origins of life. Astrophysicist Kevin Hand says, "We not only learn about what makes life on Earth tick, but we also extend our ability to assess whether or not worlds elsewhere might be habitable and possibly inhabited."

    Dave Gallo is a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, which will soon be the new home of the Deep Sea Challenger. He first worked with Cameron when the filmmaker created new robots and cameras to probe the Titanic. He was part of the support crew for the deep dive last year. He says, "This is his passion. He asks big questions and he wants big answers and doesn't want to wait for the rest of the world to catch up to him, he wants to get it done. One of the big messages that came out of Jim's dive is that life really does want to happen on this planet."

    In the movie Avatar, Cameron dreamed up the flying Mountain Banshee and an entire ecosystem for the planet Pandora. But when you see his 100 acres by the Pacific north of Santa Barbara, you realize it wasn't much of a stretch. Cameron says, "You've always got these seabird populations down here. I love watching them fly. That was a big inspiration when I was writing Avatar."

    Now his dives have inspired a deeper concern for the oceans - stressed by agricultural runoff, oil spills, over fishing. Cameron says, "We're changing it faster than we understand it. You know what I mean? And most of the changes are in a negative direction."

    He's come here by the sea to write screenplays for the next installments of Avatar. Cameron says, "There'll probably be five or six films before the whole story arc gets told." When asked, "If, by chance, you could only do one, the exploration, the filmmaking, which would it be?" Cameron responds, "I think I'd have to say I'd want to do the exploration, because these are real answers in the real world."

    In other words, living on the edge. For James Cameron, that's like being home.

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